Any believer who has spent much time in the Holy Scriptures knows that it is a mine of gold containing the riches of the glory of the knowledge of Christ. Any believer who has spent much time in the Scriptures also know that some of those nuggets are buried in deeper and darker shafts than others. In the gospels and epistles the gold is for the most part on the ground, waiting to be picked up; the glory of Christ shines through so clearly that it virtually leaps off the pages for us. In other places the gold is buried deep in the earth, requiring much work to uncover.
What the Lord has laid on my heart to do is to conduct a sort of public mining expedition down some of the deeper shafts of the Bible. The shaft of focus will be the book of 1 Samuel; a book that, if we are familiar with it, contains fascinating stories (David and Goliath comes immediately to mind) but if we are honest with ourselves, its function in our lives is less like Scripture and more like a book about God (Packer’s Knowing God for instance). In it we see God working in salvation history and his faithfulness and for that we rejoice, but the glories of Christ are dim to us, and it’s sanctifying influence hard to discern on our lives.
My goal therefore is to go mining for some of those nuggets and to bring them out into the light, that we may jointly rejoice at the glory and majesty of God. It is worth saying that I do this not because I consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed I am doing this precisely because I have read the book so many times and to some degree come up empty. And doubtless, there will be many times where these articles will be nothing more than a long-winded way of saying “I don’t know.” Nonetheless, I still want to embark on this endeavor for basically three reasons. 1) Thinking about how I would share or teach a text helps me better understand it. 2) As I have already said, there are portions of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, where it is difficult to know or understand their meaning and how they point us to Christ, and my hope is that my successes and my failures in this would help you in your time in the word as well. 3) My hope is that these articles would put the Lord and his glory on display leading you to rejoice with me in it.
Having said all that, let’s get started.
Summary of the Text:
At the end of the time of the judges, there was a man of Israel, Elkanah, who had two wives: Peninnah and Hannah. While he loved Hannah more dearly than Peninnah, Peninnah gave him children and Hannah was barren. This caused Hannah great grief, and year after year Hannah prays to the Lord for children. On one particular occasion, Hannah vows to dedicate the child to the Lord if the Lord will open her womb. Eli the priest sees her distressed state and when told by her the cause of her affliction, prophesies that she will indeed bear a son. Hannah gives birth to Samuel as prophesied and after she weans him, gives him to Eli to be raised in the service of the Lord. 1 Samuel 2:1-10 record Hannah’s prayer/song of praise at the Lord’s grace to her.
God is sovereign over our afflictions and meets us in their midst with the greatest comfort he can bring, himself.
When we first meet Hannah, she is in the midst of despair. She has long been barren, long provoked and mocked by Peninnah, and probably seen as cursed by the society for her barrenness. Her name—coming from the Hebrew for grace—was an ironic, bitter jab; the woman named “Grace” was cursed. And although she was long in prayer, although her soul was distraught, anxious, afflicted, leading her to nights of weeping and days of fasting for many long years her prayers went unanswered. And at the root of all this anguish, we find the cause: “the LORD had closed her womb” 1 Sam 1:5.
Her “curse” was in her life not because God was absent, but because he was present and working, with the goal of one day lifting it, and from her womb raising up a man who would do more than Hannah could have ever imagined: a man who would lead and bless all of Israel. And in doing so the Lord not only opens her womb but lifts her sorrow. Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2 highlights the theological reality of what is going on. And we see Hannah focus in on two truths: 1) that God is sovereign over all things, and 2) that it is his pleasure to turn circumstances on their head.
The center of her song contains a series of parallel statements showing how the Lord humbles the proud and exalts the weak:
“the bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger..
The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings to Sheol and raises up…
The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.”
We often feel trapped in our circumstances for good or for ill. If we are low or lacking we wonder how we can ever escape or get to a better place. If we are high we can scarcely imagine being brought to nothing. The affliction we face daily seems ever present and never relenting. Hope seems far off. Sorrows abound. And in the midst of it we wonder: “where are you God? How long oh Lord!”
And one day in the midst Hannah’s sorrow and despair, the Lord shows up! He turns Hannah’s sadness into rejoicing, her affliction into praise! She goes from cursed to blessed. Notice Hannah’s sadness is lifted long before the baby arrives (verse 28); more than the Lord giving us that which we pray for we need the Lord to speak to us. We need him. Can we conclude anything else when we read about Hannah vowing to give the boy back to the Lord if he will but grant her a son?
Right now we find ourselves in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. For some of you that has meant lost jobs. For others lost health. For still many others it has brought fear and anxiety at the thought of losing a loved one to this disease or of losing a job or a host of other difficulties or uncertainties. And just as the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb (verse 5) so he has brought this virus to accomplish his good ends in the midst of your pain and suffering. And for some of you, he will deliver you from that pain and suffering in a a way that makes your head spin and seemed just as unlikely as Hannah bearing a child. For some, it may get worse. The Lord makes no promise to deliver us from any of life’s sorrows here on earth. To the contrary the presence of sin and the fallenness of this world assures us that sorrows will come. He sometimes does graciously intervene has he did here with Hannah, but freedom from suffering ultimately only comes in heaven.
But as we pray for God’s mercy in the midst of this crisis, for him to show up and interrupt our lives and deal this pandemic and this crisis as unexpectedly and as radically as he broke into Hannah’s life, it is important to realize that he already has broken into our suffering and affliction in the sending his son to die. We were morally bankrupt in our sin, spiritually impotent, powerless to obey God, cast adrift in the darkness of our own folly. And through the death of Christ, we were brought to new life, made rich in grace, pleasing in God’s sight. Truly, “there is none holy like the LORD….there is no rock like our God!” Our God delights to reveal himself to the weak and afflicted, to the poor and the downcast. And when that happens, “the feeble bind on strength,” the hungry are satisfied, the poor are made rich. What we need truly, is not for things to go back to “normal” (as nice as that would be) or for a cure for this disease to be found (as much rejoicing as that would bring) but we need to draw near to Christ to receive the grace that only he can bring.
Are you in the midst of sorrow and despair? There is greater joy to be had in Christ. Are you under the weight of affliction and suffering? Come to Christ to receive comfort from the one who guards your steps. Are you mocked and scorned? Look to the Lord who will judge the earth. Are you caught up in circumstances that seem to rob you of hope, where God seems absent or uncaring? Come and worship the God who gives grace to his people. Come and receive what you most need, not healing or answers, not security or comfort, but God himself.
And what does that coming look like? Where does God meet with Hannah and comfort her? It is in the temple as she is praying and worshiping. Our impulse in suffering can be to withdraw. To withdraw from God and from our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Our impulse should be the exact opposite. It is in the gathering of believers to worship him and praise him that I can most readily expect God to show up and speak. And while present circumstances may make gathering corporately unfeasible for the moment, don’t neglect these ordinary means by which God speaks to us: through his word and through his ministers as we draw near to him and worship.